That morning, perched at the end of the dock, the fisherman had only one thing on his mind: the noon bell in Riceville. An arguably menial and temporary inconvenience, really. Only a few seconds of dull droning echoing across the water. Still, the clock on his wrist was checked almost manically as he flipped his forearm over, back, then over again, watching the minute hand inch steadily closer to the fateful hour. Once that siren went off, it would be over.
After enough years at sea, you tend to gain a certain understanding of the water, of its inhabitants– both those you should and shouldn’t be aware of– and this man understood with great certainty the finicky and fidgety nature of a coddled fish and the steadfast composure of one not so.
The marine fish to whom he dedicated several decades were not of the coddled sort. In spite of their stick-splinter bones and lace gills, they endured the pitch and throw of the stir above them unflinchingly, braved the bubbles and fizz of an unsettled ocean. The bestial grating of salt, the cracking of bows and splitting of hulls, mere backdrop to a plodding existence. Vagabonds with aperture eyes that bore witness to treading feet going still, void and unblinking, with nares like slits that could smell the pulpy metallic tang that invited teeth, teeth, and more teeth, they paid no mind to the rubbing of rope and the shearing of scales and the dull glinting of steel. Seawater was lawless and impassive, a briny gnawing of mouth and molars, a collision of gods challenging water with wind, infinity with paper fins, and the fish were too.
He couldn’t say the same for the water in Riceville. It lapped slow against the spruce pier, bored, lazy, like a pot-bellied dog running its tongue over its own sick, so the fish here were not used to the pitiless thundering of the earth making percussion of their backs. They were only accustomed to a passive suggestion of a wave, a caress in place of a crash, and would respond with alarm to any disturbance beyond that sluggish pull of the water.
With this came the issue of the noon bell.
It was a relatively new addition to the town, only implemented when the mayor was informed that time was making a run for it and now needed to be reined back in. That was less than a month ago, not nearly enough time for the fish to acclimate. Those chimes would strike the lake’s face with the ferocity of a blasphemous nun, folding and crimping the surface into a paper fan, combing the depths, pushing the water together, pulling it apart again, braiding it, and it would inevitably send the fish scattering like dropped pills, burrowing in weeds where they could and getting tangled in taut, panicked circles where they could not. So sheltered. So fussy.
There was something gentle about it for a while, he thought. The fishing pole fit that fit his hand like an old friend, the soft cork of the handle kneaded and compressed until the indents matched his knuckles, his fingers, his fingernails. The repetitive casting and reeling, casting and reeling, and bringing nothing up. With that rhythmic tranquility came possibility, and it was the possibility that made it worthwhile. But now noon was coming. That possibility would flee, fins slashing through the thick calm, and the empty palms of his hands were beginning to ache furiously.
He had no fish, nothing to present to Gardner and no reason to say, “See? Maybe next time you’ll put down the GameBoy and come with the old man.”
This was his life, baiting, luring, reeling. What would he be if he couldn’t even bring in one panfish? What would he be to Gardner? Not worth the time. The grip on the fishing rod tightened– if only minutely– with that thought. He needed that fish, and he needed it badly.
His musings were interrupted by a floating object encroaching upon his periphery through a split in the trees. A boat, the first one in a while, carving a triangle into the ripples with tender precision, not lawful enough to be a surgeon, not careless enough to be a criminal. White, white like bleached bone, white like satin moths, white like ladyfish convulsing on an oily deck. The deck of this boat was empty– no oil, no ladyfish, and, oddly enough, no passengers. From what the man could tell, there was no one on the boat.
“Hey, Murray! Back again?” came from the boat anyways, drawling and defiant towards Murray’s expectations for it. Murray wasn’t shocked. This was usually how things worked around here. Upon closer inspection, the man saw a vague shadow in the captain’s cabin, the bareboned outlines of something that might’ve been a person, but also maybe not, a being of less concrete shapes and more negative space. The fisherman smiled and waved back anyways, hand flicking backward once like he were swatting a gnat; it’d be rude not to.
“Yessir, just got in,” Murray called back with hands cupped around his mouth, dutifully ignoring the way the boat’s ivory paint sung in the late morning rays like a surfaced pearl, how it made him the greying mothball tucked in the corner of the boat’s closet.
“You be sure to tell Lauren and her boy hello for me. I haven’t been down to that ol’ farmhouse in quite a while.”
Don’t worry, he’d be sure to greet the closed doors, the rivets in the wood, the curves and halted twists in the knobs. He’d say hello to the scattered toys strangled in wires like veins, to the empty driveways scrubbed of chalk, to the quiet dinner tables with open seats but spotless plates. He’d raise his hat to the disgruntled elbows and disinterested shoulders and dolly eyes, to the “we’re going into town” and the “we’ll be a few hours late.”
If the greeting were on the boat’s behalf, would the tension finally leak from their joints, dripping onto the hardwood like spoiled milk? Would the knots in their backs finally be worked into paste? Would he finally feel welcomed? Murray nodded to the boat in a way that was not a promise but could’ve been a confirmation and prayed the boat’s company– or lack thereof– took no notice of how even the boat was better dressed than he.
He wore an offensive orange vest, an unholy brawl of stiff fabric and angry stitches with pockets upon pockets, layered and stacked on top of and under one another like playing cards, so many that not even the man was aware of all their contents. Under the barbed intensity of the vest sagged a tired flannel and graphic t-shirt that read, “The 1968 Plymouth Road Runner: Anything less is just a car.” His first ride. Crashed the beauty into a henhouse in the summer of ’81 and, evidently, hasn’t gotten over it. Atop his head was hair of a close-cut grey, the sort of grey that screamed couch change, dust bunnies, and other forgotten things. Covering that was a creamy bucket hat, yellowing with age, the brim reduced to patchwork and loose string. While he mourned the majority of his outfit, Murray turned a blind eye to the cap. It was a gift, a dying hat from a young boy to an old man, and he felt no shame in wearing it.
As the pearly split in the lake continued along its persistent eastward path, the water returned to its unnatural quiet, the dips and splashes of his line and lure lacerating the surface its only note. He was entranced by the coal-black water, the way it smelled like nostalgia, like rotting seaweed fermenting on a prop. The way it rehashed the constant small fry he’d hook from the surface each year, the awareness of something further in the depths, the simultaneous fear of the known and unknown.
Reminiscing was suffocating in the stale, near-noon sun.
On every horizon stood trees, encompassing and blocking him in like a batallion, especially the dense woods behind him. They didn’t move with the breeze. Birds sat silent in those treetops, indifferent watchdogs with eyes upon eyes upon him. What they were guarding, he didn’t know. Directly behind him, branches cracked, and the dense cloud of dirt and sticks and other mysteries at his back got heavier.
With the boat gone, Murray sat by the water alone. He’d recently noticed no one really swam in the lakes around here, this one in particular. He asked some clerk named Luke about it yesterday, and she’d only muttered something about cleanliness and a chemical spill back in April. A terrible tragedy, really decimated the farming industry this year. She never looked up from the coins on the counter, though she’d already totaled them to eleven-eleven twice.
That must be why the fish were so disinterested. Yes, there was something wrong with the lake. He’d have to explain that to Gardner. It was possible Gardner already knew, and that’s why he’d refused to come; he was the local after all. They could try a different lake tomorrow, perhaps that one near the repair shop. Even as he thought this, an unopened spool of fishing line and a smaller fishing rod still shiny with novelty mocked him relentlessly from the trunk of his car.
His fishing line was sagging in the middle, draped across the surface like stray hair. He reeled, cast, checked his watch again. 11:44.
At 11:53, the birds erupted from the trees behind him, a thick, writhing mass of beating wings and beating hearts. Murray started at the shift in atmosphere, at the sound of air pulsing like dusty rugs shook over a balcony rail, his mouse-trap jaw flinging shut, but then he settled.
What were a few birds to him? He wasn’t fishing for birds.
Above him was a sky at war with the crows and the cardinals, the black-backed woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees. They were blind and bumbling in their panic, bodies slamming against tufts, into talons, a collision of comets.
Murray stared with the indifference of a sea bass as an unlucky few were struck from the sky and sent careening downwards like heavenly pariahs, their feathers spilt ink in the midday sun. The nimblest of birds with bodies sleek as knives– the swifts, the sparrows, the songbirds that didn’t sing– managed to pull up before hitting the water, wingtips razoring their glassy reflections. Fate and physics were not so kind to the bigger birds and their still-fumbling fledglings. Backs, glossy like lacquer, crashed into the tame hills. They thrashed hysterically against their swampy cradle, dotting water across the lake in a constellation, their wings slackened by gravity or drag or maybe just teeth.
The fishing pole suffocated in Murray’s now-tense fist, but only for a moment; before long, the newfound rigidity in his shoulders drained like stale bathwater, and he nodded twice. Sure, the splashing would have without a doubt scattered the bluegill and the perch and other docile panfish, but it also drew in the more ravenous beasts lurking deep in the weeds with their pin teeth and pincushion jaws. They’d be prettier trophies anyways.
The surviving birds spread through the air like ripples of a different kind, blacks and browns and reds arching across the sky in swells. He watched them go as the last of the drowning birds slipped into the abysmal black of the water, leaden ghosts, all silent and all without purpose, surrounded but alone.
The birds died like Murray lived.
From beyond the trees, not long after the birds, came a grinding screech like metal peeling against gravel. It lurched in the air, halting and mounting in intensity, a red carpet rolling out in the breeze, and Murray lurched with it, left arm darting outwards as he swiveled towards the woods; the fishing pole followed, skidding its oversized lure along the rocky lakebed. The scream was a heartbeat on its own; it pounded with the floundering desperation of an animal without the mind or lungs or wings to flee, the pace fluttering like a sunken bird, a coddled fish.
It was distinctly boyish, a noise ridden with gasping pleas and strained vocal cords. That could’ve been Gardner. What? No, it couldn’t have. That didn’t make sense. Pull yourself together.
Murray’s throat tightened in a vice he hadn’t felt since his hair was full and his spine straight, a vice from a time when the sun ate at his flayed collarbones and torrents rocked his ship with the reckless abandon of a young mother. Back when his hands weren’t as rough as the rope nets they strained against, before the neverending loitering on the ends of piers. Back when he didn’t have to concentrate for the thrill of stinging salt in his eyes and in his nose and in his mouth to manifest itself.
Somewhere in the claw and bite of the howling, he saw himself. He knew it all too well, that moment when human retreated to animal, when cognition lost itself to the frenzied scrambling of instinct. The sudden absence of your internal organs. The feeling of your ribcage folding in on itself, collapsed at the sternum. The dread that you were about to learn what a hooked fish already knew. The scream-soaked boy in the woods sounded like he was starting to understand.
With great apprehension, Murray studied the trees that stretched from the dirt like witches’ fingers, gnarled and reaching towards blue, and the dark spaces left between them, the roots and limbs that branched out like nerve endings. Despite his being a seaman, he recognized a few certainties about the forest. He knew it was a place that breathed, often in more ways than one. There were lungs hidden in those trees, in the rushing of wind on his neck, in the shuddering of bushes, in the wriggling of larva on rancid meat. He knew it was a place that savored the hot reek of decay, bathed in it. A place that would leer with greedy eyes as you rotted and boiled and pussed, as the ravens ripped and the pigs picked. And he definitely knew it was a place where he did not want to be.
Even from the dock, Murray smelled the dredging weight of blood painting the dank air. It hung heavy in the heat like a dark curtain flung closed in mourning, a bitter speckling of iron and warmth. He swore he could hear it, too, the dripping onto the dirt and leaves like a metronome in time with the ticking on his watch. Air misted in red really was a horribly sweaty and labored sort of air to breathe.
He took a wary step further from the end of the pier, closer to the beginning of the woods, and the bottom of his boot caught on every snag and splinter in the woodwork. Moving to take another, knee already bent with his foot hovering over the dock, he noticed a subtle resistance in his left hand. A tug on the fishing pole, one that drew the line taut as Murray pulled away but dropped it as he whipped back around, a butterfly’s kiss of a bite.
In the crashing chaos, he’d nearly forgotten about the fishing pole, about the fish, both having fled to the back corners of his mind, loud children told to go be quiet in their rooms. But, now, they pounced back to the forefront, eager and all-consuming. He had to manually remind himself to breathe. In, out, in, out. Had he done it? A fish? It had to be. In that instant, even after decades of nets, poles, and spears, he forgot how his arms worked. Right then, they were useless rolls of ugly, disjointed meat with bends where bends were not meant to be, and he couldn’t seem to convince his brain to spin the reel handle.
There was a brief pause in the screaming like it was thinking, and the cavity in the air cowered at the sudden unpredictability. Screaming was expected, foreseeable; silence was not. What followed was a soft shuffling in the leaves, dumb and dragging, nearly misread as the sloshing of the waves. It continued for maybe five seconds, maybe ten. Then a thud. A groan. And the shouting started up again, but it was now a much more wet and guttural thing, the kind of bawling that bubbled in your stomach and shredded your throat. Not just a fearful cry but a doomed one.
The pole was a train track as it rattled in Murray’s unsteady hand. His mind was razed by a tug of war in which he was the rope, torn between two sides. One: his grandson, hugs, smiles, the smell of vanilla wafting to the living room, the beeping and buzzing of gadgets. The other: skittering eyes, a chest that spasmed with panic, a fight wrought of maw and teeth and willpower. He could tell that fight was made of more than his two hands could blot out.
Now, Murray may not have been old quite yet, but he certainly was not young, a stalled car at a crossroads between expecting to live and preparing to die, and his body was starting to feel the effects. What good would he honestly be to the boy with his handicapped parking pass and aching knees?
The boy. Not Gardner, of that much he was sure now. For all he knew, it wasn’t a boy at all. A vague thought made of more smoke than fire surfaced, a memory of a crew, a cry, and a conversation.
“Them red foxes are sly little bastards,” a deckhand had said. “Sound just like a crying kid.”
“Nah, mate,” interjected another, spitting a toothpick into the liquid mountains below, “they sound like a kid gettin’ axed to bits.”
Of course. It was just a fox, red and angry. That’s all. Nothing worrisome about this simple, angry fox. Stop trembling, Murray. Only a fox.
And what was a fox to him? He wasn’t fishing for a fox.
He pulled his cap a little lower over his ears to mask those wails like tires squealing on pavement. There was a jumbled sentence living somewhere in that noise, a radio reporter suffocating under layers of static. It twitched in his head, flickering over the same words again and again.
“I don’t want to die.”
Ears lied. Murray was well aware of this by now. They lied when Gardner called him boring, they lied when they overheard Lauren on the phone– “I love Dad, but I’m tired of being his keeper… yeah, I miss Mom, too.”– and they lied when that damn red fox pleaded for help. Because it was a red fox. A red fox, not a boy, and red foxes do not talk nor beg nor comprehend their own mortality.
Slowly, carefully, Murray rediscovered the crooks and cables in his arms, trying to redefine them as extensions of himself instead of parasitic appendages he held no liberty over. He flexed his right index finger at his side, bowed it at the joint. Then his middle finger. Thumb, ring and pinky. Flattened them again. He straightened his left index finger off the rod’s handle, curled it back over the cork, repeated the motion for his thumb and middle finger. Cut a circle in the air with his wrist. Bent both arms at the elbow, extended them forwards. Rolled his shoulders back.
Finally, his right hand was brought up to grasp the reel handle, and he spun it around the axel like the minute-hand of a clock. The fish complied with the dull apathy of a leashed dog, weary and heaving. No struggle. No defiance. No nylon dicing the water as a wire does clay.
A bulging maggot wriggled its way in between the folds and membranes of his thought process. What if it was not a fish at all? A clump of weed perhaps? It really was awfully still; the absence of that fluttering to and fro, of that pathway spanning an arch as wide as the line allowed, was just as loud as the fox.
Upon a brisk shake of his head, the maggot was muscled from his mind, smearing grease in its wake. No, it was a fish, he assured himself. A lazy one, maybe. One that slumped instead of swam, that floated instead of fled. But a fish nonetheless.
He could still hear the shriek continuing to build– ragged and cold and full of gaps and breaks where the voice dropped out underneath like thin ice.
Reflected in the water, gazing in wonder at the fiber weaving around the reel, was Gardner’s face. Murray could see the smile through the tide, the square teeth, triangle lips; that, and the regret, the eyes oddly enraptured by wine stains on the carpet after he presented his soon-to-be bounty to the home. In the whirring of the line, he heard Gardner’s apology, the wishing he would’ve gone, the promises of a future outing, the interlocked pinkies.
Like a skewered worm, the baying squirmed in the air until it softened, flickered, a dying lightbulb of a sound. It became much less bright and serrated as the ice thawed to a lullaby of groaning. It was almost worse. What likely wasn’t (but could have been) calling for “someone” melted into what likely wasn’t (but could have been) begging for “anyone.”
“Please, I don’t want to die alone.” More exhale than words. A trick of the mind.
Reeling, contemplating, he stayed on the dock, occupied by the handsome bottom feeder arrested at the end of his line. A man intoxicated, Murray was trampled by flashing images like a stop-frame film, flares of brown, blue, and grey. What awaited him under that blanket of water? The duck’s bill of a northern pike, green and plagued with white blotching? The prying whiskers of a catfish, stirring up a haze in the loose sediment? With each blink, a new enthralling possibility. Scales, slimy and gold in the sun. A distended belly, all slick fat and gummy flesh, overflowing in his paws. Gills like the underside of mushrooms. Fins unmarred by the curious nibbling of smaller fish.
There was more shuffling in the leaves now. Quicker this time, and quieter. With purpose. Murray heard a sharp intake of air, and in the next moment, it was cut off with a wet squelch, a noise like ramming your thumbs into rotten squash, like stepping on pumpkin guts, the innards squishing through your toes like worms from the damp earth, seeds plastered to your feet with orange syrup and stringy fruit and other sugary rot. The woods went silent again.
The fish’s head broke the surface.
The stench broke next, reeking of curdled milk left in a hot car, of browning cabbage, of floating carcasses thrown about by the tide. The smell elicited little more than a scrunch of his nose, a possible downturn of his lower lip, but it was the sight of the fish that left him dumbfounded. Muddy and listless and undeniably dead. And not the type of dead that could be confused for slumber. The type of dead prophesied by beetles and gnats, the type that loomed in crumbling crypts, in the deserted rooms in hospital basements, in the soupy broth that marinates coffins. Long dead. Still a fish. Just a fish, just a fish, just a fish.
Swollen leech lips gaped open soundlessly; the beginnings of plants– green, white, and every shade of brown– flowered from the pyramid of silt clogging the space between them. Nothing was where it was meant to be, not even the hook, Murray noted. Not through rubber lips but through the fish’s eye did it tear, leaving it deflated and half-popped from its socket like a displaced joint, all wrong angles and exposed nerves.
No bite then. He must’ve snagged it off the bottom. Did that still count as catching it? Sure, it did. A tinge of burning crimson alit in his chest, regardless of attempts at dousing the flame. Any fish was better than no fish.
Neither the sight nor smell deterred him for too long either way– Gardner was waiting for him. Ignoring the slicing pain of nylon in the soft of his palm, he tugged the line upwards by hand until the abdomen was above water. He set the pole down beside him, line still cinched in his right, and leaned over the edge of the dock on his shins, fumbling through the warm water with his left and searching for purchase. Skin brushed against decay, and Murray snatched up both the fish’s wrists in his hand, the texture a strange mix of spongy flesh and thin, ridged plastic. Oh, they were already bound, how convenient.
Line in the right and limb in the left, he tried to drag the body up onto the pier only to find the skin on its hands coming off in filmy slabs much like slippery gloves. Its hands slithered through his grip and splashed back down in the lake, a sucking pop in the fish’s neck sounding at the added weight on the line still hooked to the crannies of its skull. Wiping the greasy wads on his vest, dulling the orange with stains, he huffed once, like a taunted bull.
Once more into the fray.
Resolutely, the fisherman ignored the slush of soapy fat under his fingers as he rediscovered the wrists underwater and grabbed hold again. He arched backward, boots braced against the woodwork, drawing the fish into the sky until it fully broached the surface. More tissue tore off its back in little strips like soaked paper as Murray heaved it onto the dock.
His catch now fully splayed out along the pier, arms bent in prayer, still joined at the wrist with elbows jutting out to the side, the ankle of one leg tucked behind the knee of the other, Murray stopped for several moments and did nothing but stare at this bulbous, buried thing he had dredged up. The skin was a beast to be in the presence of alone, a collage of rot with pruning green on top and a purple underbelly, spotty like watercolor, the whole body mottled with seeping blisters. Limbs were bloated balloon animals, blown up in cartoony colors. He thought about reaching down and twisting the arm into a purple-green dog, thought about shoving a pin into the fish’s cheek and listening for the pop and sputter of a collapsing inflatable. He did neither of these things.
Adorning the fish’s head were bread-colored curls and an upturned piggy nose weeping a gross syrup, a steady mix of water, blood, and something creamy and clotted that made the air taste of sour butter and sausages gone bad, percolated by mold. There were a few chunks missing here and there: an ear, a toe, various intermediate nuggets of meat. Even so, Murray cast a small blessing out for the meek nature of Riceville fish. Without it, this one would’ve been picked down to the grit and bone.
Eventually, his attention turned back to action. With a thumb and forefinger, he pinched the hook at the joint between steel and string, jiggled it a bit, then twisted it from its anchor under the upper bone of the fish’s eye socket. The whole eye came with it, yanking braids of slime and sinew out behind it.
Moss and milfoil grew from its mouth, taking root in the dirt and decaying gums. It was beautiful in a way, how life existed as a byproduct of decay, but that beauty had no place in a fish. He wrapped his fingers tight around the hollow stems, around the leaves like moth’s antennae, around the clumping earth, then ripped it all out; bits of festering tongue and tiny dandelion incisors came with it, ensnared in the green. Much better.
Though the animal still looked like the type of fish only a shark could love, it was sure sizable, Murray could grant it that. Definitely over a meter, maybe even a meter half? Nothing like the bass and panfish he usually brought in. Plus, the way all its colors came together to paint its smeared portrait was sure to trump even the best of artists. In spite of the circumstances, he couldn’t bar the pool of glee swelling in his chest, dripping down the caverns of his abdomen, spreading like flower petals at dawn. After a morning of bug bites and itchy welts, of a pulsing sun and pounding radiation, he’d done it. Finally. A fish for his grandson.
The noon bell went off, stampeding over the water, a hum in his ears, a murmur in his ribcage, and the fisherman was all teeth. White, white like bleached bone, white like satin moths, white like dead ladies and dead ladyfish. His fist gripped the fish’s snarled and sodden hair with a shivering enthusiasm even as patches came off in clumps, plastered to the spaces in between his fingers.
He couldn’t wait to show Gardner his catch.
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